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Could California State become national model to stem sexual violence on campus? (+video)

California State University – the largest in the US – announced it will appoint advocates for victims of sexual assault on all 23 of its campuses. Lawmakers praised the move, saying it could spur similar action around the country.

The issue of dealing with sexual violence on American university campuses just got a boost from the largest public university system in the US.

California State University – which enrolls 447,000 students – will appoint advocates for victims of sexual assault on all 23 of its campuses – a move that may spur other colleges around the nation to take similar action, two California lawmakers said Monday. 

Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Susan Davis, who this summer authored a bill that would require all US colleges and universities that receive federal funding to enact similar measures, praised the university in a press release and called on others to follow suit.

“I hope this trend will continue on university campuses across the nation,” said Representative Davis in the statement.

Several national experts say the university’s move could be a much-needed boon when it comes to tackling the problem of sexual violence on campus.

It comes against a backdrop of a series of events this year highlighting the crisis’ severity – not least a highly publicized White House campaign. This year, colleges and universities have been widely criticized for failing to report or mishandling sexual violence cases on their campuses, with more than 150 facing governmental scrutiny. In California, UC-Berkeley, USC, and UCLA are among those under investigation by the federal government. Also, in August, the state legislature passed a law that established a first-in-the-nation standard of “yes means yes” for sexual consent. 

Against that backdrop, experts say that Cal State’s move provides both practical help for victims and a potential template for other institutions of higher learning.

“Students on college campuses who experience sexual assault or intimate partner violence victimization often face many challenges in reporting their abuse,” says Christine Murray, a member of the American Counseling Association. “They may fear the impact it could have on their academic or social standing, they may not know where to report the abuse or what the response will be, or they may blame themselves or have been told that the abuse they experienced was their fault.”
 
 She says by having a trained, designated victim advocate on campus, survivors can learn about their options for reporting and learn about resources available to help them in their community.

One in 5 women are raped during their lifetime, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, with 40 percent of those reporting that the assaults occurred during college.

Under Boxer’s and Davis’s bill, called the SOS Campus Act (Survivor Outreach and Support Campus Act) all colleges and universities that receive federal funding would be required by June 2015 to appoint independent, on-campus advocates to support victims with emergency medical care, guidance on reporting sexual assaults to law enforcement, information on their legal rights and other services.

“The common-sense provisions of the SOS Campus Act are not only a means of support for survivors, they send a powerful message that such illegal behavior will not be tolerated and that we all have an obligation to stop sexual assault,” says Davis.

The benefits are clear, many say. But others say there is a possible down side as well.

Laura Dunn, a campus rape survivor and legal advocate through the group SurvJustice, applauds the SOS Campus Act measure overall because it makes “clear that the responsibility for sexual violence should be placed on the perpetrator ... and people should have the right to be free from sexual impositions.”

But she says she is very concerned that the campus advocates – unless protected by specific provisions – could buckle under pressure from the schools they serve. And unless confidentiality is spelled out legally, the information given to advocates in confidence could be subject to subpoena.

"There is a lot of top-down pressure on advocates to serve the interests of the institution rather than that of the survivor,” says Ms. Dunn. “I am concerned they won’t do their jobs unless protected from retaliation. I have seen first hand many times that when push comes to shove, the advocate sides with the school and the survivor feels betrayed because of the appearance that the advocate was on their side.”

Zachary Coile, communications director for Senator Boxer, said the issue of independence was uppermost in both legislators’ minds when they drafted the bill and they put in provisions to protect that, including one that mandates that “the Advocate shall represent the interests of the student victim even when in conflict with the interests of the institution.”

Ms. Murray says it is important that these victim advocates are visible and have a clearly defined role on their campuses, especially as their jobs relate to other professionals on campus, such as the Counseling Center, Campus Police, and the Dean of Students Office.

Dan Lebowitz, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, says the Cal State move will have very positive influence for the spread of such measures on other US campuses. The center has developed a model for several US campuses as well as the military, and he says the key is training.

“Yes it can be costly, but the cost of not knowing how to deal with these issues can be far worse,” says Jarrod Chin, director of training for CSSS. He notes that after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State was fined $60 million for not handling the issue properly.

And President Obama himself also stepped into the spotlight, announcing a White House-backed “It’s On Us” initiative last week, enlisting scores of Hollywood and other celebrities to produce public service announcements urging young men to step in if they see someone being attacked. 

“As far as we’ve come, the fact is that from sports leagues to pop culture to politics, our society still does not sufficiently value women," Obama said, in announcing the initiative Friday. "We still don’t condemn sexual assault as loudly as we should. We make excuses. We look the other way. The message that sends can have a chilling effect" on young men and women.

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